Iowa: Better sorry than safe

The Iowa DNR says you as a beachgoer have no need to know if toxins in the water might have reached a level that the U.S. EPA believes demands caution.

Iowa environmental officials are taking an unusual position for people charged with protecting the citizens of the state: “Better sorry than safe.”

No, that’s probably not the message you heard from Mom or Dad.

But it is the effect of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) position not to follow tougher rules on water quality to guide warnings to beachgoers.

DNR has decided that if toxins in water reach a risk level suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as right for a warning, that is on a need-to-know basis, and you as a beachgoer have no need to know before you dive in, or before your child or dog splashes around, maybe drinks a little of the lake in the process.

Iowa is sticking with a more relaxed standard, of 20 micrograms of the microsystin toxin per liter, instead of the EPA-recommended 8 microgram level.

The Gazette story by Erin Jordan comes almost a year to the day since an Iowa Policy Project report by Carolyn Buckingham, Mary Skopec and myself showed how little the state is doing to address increasing problems with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa waters. The report noted DNR testing had shown increasing numbers of beach advisories from 2009 through 2016, and increases in the number of lakes with advisories against swimming, due to microsystin levels — 17 of the 39 monitored beaches (graph below). And that was recorded under the weaker standard of 20 micrograms per liter.

Microsystin advisories for Iowa lakes, 2006-16Climate change and increased nutrient runoff contribute to increased algal blooms at the heart of the problem. If the number of advisories and lakes affected were to rise even more because of tougher standards, that likely would drive more Iowans to push for changes in policy to address the causes.

Safe might not be the top priority.

Sorry.

David Osterberg is lead environmental researcher and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Water funding exposes shallow commitment

Recent initiative fails to meet needs to improve Iowa water quality

Voters have indicated their support for increasing funding to improve water quality in Iowa, earmarking part of the next sales tax increase for clean water. So far, the protected trust fund for outdoor recreation and water quality remains empty.

Our latest water quality report addresses these issues:

  • What has been the state’s spending commitment to water quality over the past 15 years?
  • How much of state and federal dollars goes to reduce nutrient pollution in Iowa?
  • How much spending is needed to make meaningful water quality progress?
  • How can the state raise adequate revenue to make an impact?

We identified 16 primarily state-level programs that fund water quality improvements. Funding in the most recent year hasn’t even reached 2008 to 2009 levels.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), implemented in 2013, was created to reduce nutrient pollution that creates a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy was advertised as a new commitment by the state to reduce Iowa’s pollution of our own rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the NRS, we find that state water quality spending has dropped off and struggled to return to pre-2008 recession levels.

190424-WQ-Fig1

The Water Resources Coordinating Council is tasked with overseeing NRS progress, and measures the financial resources dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution from the state of Iowa to the Mississippi River system. The most recent NRS report shows $512 million was spent in state and federal dollars on Iowa nutrient reduction in 2017.[1] However, the state is largely riding the wave here; the real money comes from federal funding.

While it was assumed that adopting the NRS would increase Iowa’s commitment to water quality, it did not — though at the same time pollution has increased. Recent research indicates Iowa’s share of nutrient loading into the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds actually increased between 2000 and 2016.[2]

In 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that appropriates $282 million to water quality efforts over the next 12 years.[3] This gesture compares poorly even to existing — and lacking — government water quality spending. Iowa is nowhere near to what is needed.

How much money does it really take to make a meaningful impact on Iowa water quality? The NRS document, written mainly by Iowa State University, estimated the cost of reducing nonpoint contamination under three scenarios. All were in the billions of dollars.

The Iowa Soybean Association estimates for nutrient reduction costs in just one river basin, the Lime Creek Watershed,[4] implies a statewide need of $1.4 billion a year for about 15 years. These estimates demonstrate the inadequacy of the 2018 spending bill.

Current investments are not resulting in discernible improvements in Iowa’s water quality. Two options available for generating the amount of revenue needed include removing the exemption of fertilizer used in agriculture and taxing it like other commodities.

A second option is fully funding the environmental trust that voters approved in a statewide referendum in 2010. Estimated revenue from either of these sources would bring more than $100 million per year. We need to tap new sources to make our state commitment to water quality equal to the task. Until then, we are only paying lip service to the problem.

[1] Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report. Page 9.

http://www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/NRS2018AnnualReportDocs/INRS_2018_AnnualReport_PartOne_Final_R20190304_WithSummary.pdf

[2] Christopher Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling, & Larry Weber, “Iowa stream nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico.” April 2018. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195930&type=printable

[3] Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Reynolds signs water quality bill, her first as governor.” January 2018. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/31/reynolds-signs-water-quality-bill-her-first-governor/1082084001/

[4] Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs & Services, “Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Plan: A roadmap for improved water quality, sustained agricultural productivity & reduced flood risk. N.D. https://www.iasoybeans.com/search/?q=lime+creek

 

2018-NV-6w_3497(1)

 

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Courageous words about ‘timid’ funding

Even a farm group may face consequences for daring to challenge Iowa’s poor funding of water quality efforts.

Even farm groups dare not question the timid funding of water quality

Recently the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported a slapdown of the Iowa Soybean Association by the Iowa Legislature.

Thanks to reporting by Erin Jordan of The Gazette, we learn now that a year ago, legislators were angered by comments from Iowa’s main soybean group that Governor Kim Reynolds’ first bill as governor — new money for water quality — was “timid.”

Partly because of that remark, the Gazette reported, legislators stuck back against the group by taking $300,000 in state funds away. Ironically, those funds had gone for research on water quality improvement.

In her article, Soybean group pays price for calling water bill ‘timid’, Jordan reported:

The Soybean Association had received $400,000 a year in state funding for the On-Farm Network, a program that helps farmers gather data to better manage nitrate fertilizer application on their cornfields. More precise application means less money spent on fertilizer and less excess nitrate washing into lakes and waterways.

IPP used some of the data collected by the Iowa Soybean Association in our recent report on water quality funding by the state. We called our paper “Lip Service” since that is about all Iowans are getting from their top leaders in response to widespread concerns about water quality in the state.

The Iowa Soybean Association research was very good. We found it to be the best out there on what improving nutrient pollution from agriculture was likely to cost. Now, that research has been curtailed because that organization had the temerity to tell the truth about the big talk and little money the state gives to improve water quality in the state.

To read our report or a one-page executive summary, visit the Iowa Policy Project website at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org.

David Osterberg is lead environment and energy researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Bill Stowe: Water quality hero

Bill Stowe’s courageous fight for clean water lives on.

160915-Stowe-130333crop
Bill Stowe speaks at IPP’s 15th anniversary event in September 2016. (Photo: Lance Coles)

Bill Stowe, dead at 60. The average American male born in 1959 should live about another 10 years. But there was nothing average about Bill Stowe.

The average male does not get three advanced degrees from three different institutions. The average American, male or female, does not take on the strongest and most powerful to change public debate, and force accountability where it was lacking.

Bill ran the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), the largest supplier of clean drinking water in Iowa. It was a surface water system. That means it had to deal with the serious pollution that unrestrained agricultural practices put into Iowa waters — a costly and unsustainable proposition.

Realizing he could not continue to pass on the costs of treating that water to his customers alone, he took action — courageous action in an agricultural state — to either get the polluters to stop, or at least to pay for the problems they are causing.

The case of the Des Moines Water Works vs. three Iowa counties with drainage districts that were some of the main polluters of the Raccoon River went to federal court. It scared agricultural organizations like the various state Farm Bureau federations.

As Stowe and DMWW fought “dark money”-funded interests in court, he gained both foes who favor the status quo and allies who shared either the lawsuit’s goals or the desire to help Iowans see what big industry was up to. Others joined the fight, including one small-town journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, and activists who keep his fight alive today.

Bill lost his case in court, but pushed water quality more squarely into Iowa’s political and policy spotlight, forcing politicians including Terry Branstad to concede a need to do something — even though their actions have fallen short.

Bill Stowe was generous with his time and talked to groups about treating water to make it safe. He taught a class of mine.

160314-Stowe-DO classThe picture above was from three years ago when we visited the treatment works he served. He spoke often to groups about his passion for clean water all around the state — including as the featured speaker for the 15th anniversary of our organization in 2016.

When IPP considers what papers to investigate we often ask knowledgeable people around the state for thoughts on what would be helpful to better inform public debate. Bill had suggestions for our latest series of reports on water quality.

When IPP researcher Natalie Veldhouse and I met with him and his DMWW colleague Laura Sarcone in November, they had good suggestions that helped us in the development of our latest paper. When I sent a copy of that paper to Laura for her thoughts, I did not know that Bill was already in hospice.

Bill died too soon. His fight for clean water remains important for all Iowans.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is co-founder, former executive director and lead environment and energy researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Perspective for the common good on Tax Day

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether rampant tax breaks, subsidies and tax cuts are wise choices with public dollars from taxpayers.

It is so tempting, as we are seeing on social media over the last several days, to talk about filing your taxes and the fact that you (1) paid more or (2) paid less.

Is that really what matters? Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture — the common good. There are three main points to remember:

1) First, what are taxes for? Schools. Roads. National defense. Health care. Fairness and protection in the workplace. Clean air. Clean water. Recreational opportunities. Libraries. There are more examples you may put out front.

But in any case, none of those services funded now by taxpayers will be provided without taxes. They will not be provided by the private sector, at least on any scale that provides access to all Americans.

Go ahead. Chart a road to opportunity for all that does not include taxes. You cannot do it. It is integral to the mission, which is why tax reform is an essential stop we identify on our Roadmap for Opportunity. Unfortunately, Iowans have not received tax reform, but a doubling down on bad tax policy trends of the last 20 or 30 years.

2) Our Iowa tax code is inequitable. The rich pay less as a share of their income than people who live paycheck to paycheck.

It was already a long-term trend in Iowa (and in many states) and it was worsened by the 2018 tax overhaul. Our state and local tax system is upside down.

3) Cleaning up and restoring balance to our tax code would better assure public money is going to public purposes, rather than subsidizing tax breaks and loopholes for those most politically well-connected.

As we have shown:
•     Tax credits for business already cost more than $300 million a year.
•     Tax loopholes for multistate and multinational corporations already cost between $60 million and $100 million.

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether those choices are the best use of public money, when we know education, public safety and environmental quality are being compromised by short-sighted budget decisions in Des Moines.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Ag Gag: Never a good idea

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

pigs-matrixThe Iowa Legislature and our former governor just got a spanking by the courts. The “ag-gag” law they created in 2012 is unconstitutional because it violates free speech.

As Trish Mehaffey reported last week in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the law “threatened up to a year in jail for those individuals who use undercover means or provide false identities to document or report on activities in the agricultural animal facilities.” In other words, the law — now overturned — had criminalized actions by a whistle blower.

Another law passed and signed in 2017 needs similar testing by the courts. This one restricted nuisance suits by neighbors against large animal production facilities, as IPP reported in March 2017.

The source of both laws was the ag industry, which has successfully lobbied legislators to avoid better approaches to livestock production, with scare tactics about the survival of the industry. Their claims are nonsense.

For evidence, look to Denmark — like Iowa, a big and thriving producer of hogs, but with many more restrictions. Rather than making it a crime to report on abuse of animals, Denmark requires that:

“All Danish pigs are produced within independently monitored assurance schemes, which also require a monthly visit by the local veterinarian. In addition, the Danish authorities run an annual programme of ‘unannounced’ visits to ensure that all welfare legislation is being complied with.” [1]

In other words, whistleblowing would be encouraged.

Denmark has other rules in its promotion of a strong industry that considers animal welfare and protection of human health:

  • Required “showering systems for all pigs over 20kg weight to enable them to regulate their body temperature in hot weather.
  • A 2015 ban on the use of fully slatted flooring systems allows pigs a more comfortable lying area. [2]
  • Reducing antibiotic use in all animals by 49 percent from 1994 through 2016, while production of food animals actually increased by 15 percent. [3] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only a voluntary program to reduce antibiotic use in animal agriculture and this effort has yet to show decreases in total amount of antimicrobials. [4]

In Iowa, ways have been shown to raise hogs other than in confinements that are outside the public eye or contrary to neighbors’ concerns. Hoop houses offer one such alternative. Among environmental advantages, hoop houses remove one problem because manure produced is mixed with straw or other materials. That manure can be applied to land with much less danger of running off into streams, a problem with liquid manure from confinements.

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

[1] Agriculture and Food.co.uk. Providing Information on the Danish Pig industry. Overview https://agricultureandfood.co.uk/welfare/overview

[2] Ibid.

[3] Statens Serum Institut, National Veterinary Institute, National Food Institute. “DANMAP 2016.”

[4] United States, Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Guidance for Industry #213.” December 2013, https://tinyurl.com/ybkn2uk5.

2016-osterberg_5464 David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and a state legislator from the 1983 through 1994 sessions of the General Assembly, is the lead environmental researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Listen to Osterberg’s interview on this topic with Michael Devine of KVFD, 1400AM in Fort Dodge.

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org